The ninety kilometre drive from the coastal hamlet of Torquay to Truganina in Melbourne’s outer western suburbs took longer than expected, due to the Monday morning peak hour commuter traffic.
On their longer road trips Mitch usually drove. Today, that was not an option. Instead, Alison took the reins on a long and lonely drive filled with a mix of expectation and fear.
Visiting a prison for the first time was a daunting experience for anyone, particularly someone as law abiding as Alison. Her only exposure to prisons and the criminal element was from what she watched on TV, or in the movies.
A number of thoughts filled her mind. Would she be strip searched before entry…? Would she be forced to mingle with cigarette smoking, gum-chewing, heavily tattooed, skanky women with black finger nail polish, bottled bleached hair and skinny jeans…? Or was that an unfair stereo-type portrayed by TV and the media?
Regardless, she couldn’t wait to see Mitch for the first time in ten days? She hoped she didn’t cry.
Alison left the highway to drive through the outer lying suburbs. Despite the heavy traffic, she was on time to register ahead of her 9am appointment at Port Philip Prison.
The road leading to the prison was long and arrow straight. As she neared her destination, the towering walls of the prison rose up from the acres of vacant fields surrounding it, like an imposing citadel.
The car park was over two-thirds full when Alison arrived. She checked the time, in case she was late. She wasn’t.
After parking her car, Alison paused for a moment to consider whether to take her hand bag inside with her, or lock it in the boot. She glanced around at the near-full car park before deciding to take it with her.
As she made her way to the prison visitor reception area, Alison subconsciously clutched her handbag close to her body, as though concerned someone would rush up and snatch it from her.
Walking up to the prison was strangely like approaching Immigration and Border Control at an overseas country they had visited; the unknown of what to expect, surrounded by dour Guards and stringent rules and procedures. To Alison at least, that was always a daunting experience. This was no different.
Contrary to her preconceived ideas about what to expect, the staff at Visitor Reception were friendly and most helpful. It was no different to the reaction she received from the friendly staff at her local supermarket; they were all so nice.
Like queuing in a supermarket deli, Alison took a number from the counter then moved to a nearby waiting room. Seven other women were already in the room waiting. She took a vacant seat and hugged her hand bag close to her chest.
Alison casually eyed the other women in the room. They were as young as twenty through to a woman in her sixties. Some were casually attired in clean casual clothing, others chose to wear tracksuit pants and misshapen t-shirts. Black active wear pants were a popular choice among the younger female visitors.
One-by-one a guard called a number. The visitor holding that number left the waiting room and did not return.
After a wait of about ten minutes, Alison’s number was called. A female Guard seated at a desk beckoned Alison over. While the female Guard was pleasant and friendly, Alison’s hands were clammy and her pulse had quickened as she stood at the reception counter.
Alison produced her required 100 points of ID to the Guard, which was checked and confirmed against Mitch’s visitor list. She then asked Alison to pass her hand under a ultra-violet lamp, to initially check there were no other stamps on her hand.
When her hand was found to be clear, the guard stamped the back of Alison’s hand with a stamp, invisible to the naked eye.
The Guard secured Alison’s handbag and other banned property in a locker and handed her the locker key for retrieval on her return.
With her property safely secured, the Guard directed Alison to the queue of four women standing over near a door. Alison joined the back of the queue.
She watched those ahead of her with interest. First, a female Guard did a cursory search of clothing; a quick check of waistbands; under collars, tops of socks, inside and under shoes. Nothing too intimidating.
Then they checked the stamp on the back of the visitor’s hand. Once they were clear, the visitor disappeared through a doorway.
Alison wasn’t wearing socks, or a collared shirt, so when her time came, they only checked her jeans waistband and her footwear. Once they verified her stamp, she moved through the door.
On the other side of the door, a Guard directed her to an unappealing, claustrophobic waiting room. The four women who were ahead of her at the last screening station sat in this room. They all watched Alison as she entered the room and took a seat.
One-by-one a Guard came and escorted a woman away. As those ahead her reduced in numbers, others behind Alison arrived.
When her time came a Guard escorted Alison to a small meeting room. As they walked the friendly male Guard casually asked if Alison had visited before.
‘This is my first time. I actually have no idea what I am doing, or what to expect,’ she said.
The Guard smiled. ‘It’s all straight forward, really,’ he said. ‘Today you will be meeting in a non-contact visit.’ The Guard gestured in the direction they were walking. ‘Up ahead of us are a number of rooms. I will put you in one of the rooms where you will sit on one side of a Perspex window and the inmate you are visiting will be on the other. You will communicate via telephone.’
‘How long do we have…?’
‘You normally get about one hour…’ The Guard said. ‘But your husband is on remand, isn’t he?’
‘Yes, that’s right.’ Alison frowned. ‘Do you know all of your prisoners in here?’
The Guard smiled. ‘No. I’m not that clever. I just know who is on the visit lists on a particular day, so we know the timing and things. We relax the time limits for inmates on remand because they are not sentenced inmates.’
When they arrived at the visit room the Guard opened the door for Alison to enter. Her side of the room was just big enough to fit a chair. A room of similar dimensions was on the other side of the window. A narrow ledge for a desk and a wall-mounted telephone were the only other items of furniture in the room.
‘Everything OK…?’ The Guard asked.
Alison took her seat. ‘Yes, thank you,’ she said.
‘I have to close the door now, OK?’
Alison nodded nervously.
The guard closed door behind her. If not for the large window, she could have been sitting in a closet. Her eyes nervously scanned the room on her side, before flicking across to the other side, where Mitch would sit when he came out. She stared at the door on Mitch’s side, anxiously waiting for it to open.
For the first time since arriving in his own version of hell, Mitch had a spring in his step. He had purpose. He walked faster than the Guard escorting him.
The day had finally arrived when Mitch could not only speak to his beautiful wife, but he would be able to look her in the eyes when he did. His excitement and expectation resembled a young child on Christmas morning.
‘This your first box visit…?’ the Guard asked.
Mitch glanced back over his shoulder at the Guard. Frown lines formed on his forehead. ‘Box visit…?’ Mitch said as a question.
The Guard grinned at Mitch. ‘The visit you are having today is referred to in prison vernacular as a Box Visit. Political correctness now-a-days prevents us from calling it that, but we all still do. You’ll understand why when you see the size of the room you’ll meet in,’ the Guard said.
‘I wouldn’t care if I meet in a phone box…’ Mitch said. ‘I just want to see my wife again…’
‘Be careful what you wish for…’ the Guard said with a smirk. ‘It isn’t much bigger than that in there.’
The Guard stopped at row of doors and gestured to the one Mitch would be entering. He opened the door and Mitch stepped inside.
Fluorescent lighting lit the small 1.5 by 1.5 metre meeting room. As the door closed behind Mitch his eyes instantly locked onto the familiar face of Alison seated on the other side of a window. A smile filled his face.
Alison stood from her chair when she recognised Mitch. Her hand shot up to her mouth. She started to cry; probably at the sight of him in his drab prison greens.
Mitch placed his palms on the window. Alison did the same, placing her small hands against his. Mitch took a moment to look at his wife. It was so good to see her again.
He gestured to the telephone receiver, which he lifted and took a seat. Alison did the same.
It was evident that comfort was not a consideration when constructing these boxes. The steel round seat, attached to a steel arm projecting from the front wall, was anything but comfortable.
At that moment though, Mitch would’ve happily sat on spikes if it meant he could see his wife again.
‘You look so good,’ Mitch said. ‘You are a sight for sore eyes.’
Alison’s eyes filled. ‘I just want you to come home…’ she said.
Mitch placed his hand on the glass. Alison did the same. It was the closest they could get to holding hands.
‘I will…Don’t worry. This will work out, eventually.’
If only he believed his own words. While he projected strength and confidence to his wife, in his own mind, he was anything but. He hated it in prison. He hated living on the edge, worrying where the next attack would come from. And he hated not being able to see and hold his wife. On top of that, he worried that he could find himself right back here again, after his court case, waiting to stand trial for murder.
There had not been a night go by since he arrived where, during the many hours of isolation, he hadn’t considered the what if; what if they found him guilty of murder? How would he cope if this was to be his life? Regardless of how he felt on the inside, he had to be strong for Alison. He had to project strength and confidence. So he did.
‘But until then…’ Alison said, ‘you have to be in here. You don’t belong in that, that…’ she flicked a finger at his greens, ‘clothing,’ she said.
Mitch smiled. ‘Did you have any trouble finding the place?’
‘No. The GPS helped. It was straight forward.’
‘Did you have to jump through many hoops at Security to get in here?’
‘No. I just had to have 100 points of ID.’
‘Did they search you?’
‘Only a basic sort of pat down and checked my shoes, that was all.’
Mitch nodded. ‘Good.’ He smiled as he held his loving gaze on Alison. ‘Gee, it is so good to be able to look at you again.’
Alison smiled. She was starting to relax. ‘I miss you Hun…’ Her eyes scanned across the small box they each sat in. ‘This is a terrible way to see you though…in this…this cubicle.’
‘Once you get cleared, I will be allowed to have a contact visit. We can sit together at a table...or even take a walk outside in the yard.’
‘I would love that,’ Alison said.
‘Me too.’ Mitch held his gaze on Alison. He was just happy to see her. He didn’t need to talk.
After they both settled from the experience of meeting in a confined box and seeing each for the first time in a week and a half, their conversation flowed more freely. They discussed anything and everything.
Their topics of conversation were irrelevant to Mitch. He was happy to see her and hear her voice. He needed reassurance she was coping well with everything.
‘Are you safe in here…?’ Alison said. ‘I worry that you will get hurt.’
‘I’m fine…really I am. You don’t have to worry.’
‘Would you honestly tell me if I did have anything to worry about?’
Mitch grinned. ‘Probably not…’ he said. ‘But having said that…You don’t have to worry, OK.’
Alison forced out a straight mouth smile, albeit without conviction.
‘I met this guy in here. He is a top bloke. A man of high integrity and morals, which is very rare in here. I think that is why we hit it off.’
‘Integrity and morals…in a prison…? That sounds like such a contradiction, Mitch.’
’Yeah, I get that. Tell me this. Do you think I have high integrity and morals…?
‘Well, I’m in prison…’
‘Yes, but… you’re innocent.’
‘The guy I’m talking about, Fitzy is his name. He went to help a young girl who he believed was about to be raped by three men. The three men tried to fight him. They lost. One fell to the ground and struck his head. He later died in hospital from the head injury, so they charged Fitzy with manslaughter. He got fifteen months.’ Mitch held his gaze on Alison. ‘Fifteen months for saving a woman from scum…That was his reward. That was what he got for having high integrity and morals…’
’That is terrible…So he is like you then. You both tried to defend yourself and one or more of the attackers died…’
Alison’s face tightened. ‘What does that mean for you…? If this Fitzy got fifteen months…does that mean you’ll get more time because two of them died…?’ Alison’s hand covered her mouth.
Mitch shook his head. ‘No. No. No,’ he said firmly. ‘Different circumstances. Don’t worry about that. Frank Morgan is confident there is no case to answer. We just have to be patient.’
Mitch put on a brave face for Alison. However, he too shared similar concerns about a probable sentence, after hearing Fitzy’s circumstances. But he didn’t let his thoughts be known to her. He needed her to be calm. This whole situation was difficult enough for her, so he needed to reassure everything would work out for the better, eventually. He hoped.
A male voice though the telephone receiver interrupted their conversation to announce visit time was over. Alison checked her watch. Over two hours had passed like only minutes.
Alison collapsed back in her seat. Her mouth fell open. Her eyes welled up. She didn’t want him to leave.
Mitch said his good-byes, with strong reassurances that everything would be OK. He told her that they could meet again next week and he would call her tomorrow for a chat.
It tore at him to see the distress on her face as she watched him step out from his side of the box. The door closed behind him and she was gone.
Mitch’s gait was in such contrast to earlier. His head was lowered. His shoulders were rounded slightly. He step was slow. His thoughts were solely on Alison and the pained expression she had on her face as the box door closed.
Meeting with his wife was bitter-sweet. It was fantastic to see her and talk with her, but it was difficult to see her so sad like she was when their meeting ended. He hated that she had to be put through this. She would be upset for most of the return drive home.